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From coral to sponges to anemones, divers find 'fascinating world' in waters off Plum Island

Over a series of 26 dives in five days, divers inventoried the underwater environment and found 126 species.
InnerSpace Scientific Diving
InnerSpace Scientific Diving
Over a series of 26 dives in five days, divers inventoried the underwater environment and found 126 species.

An environmental advocacy group said recent dives off the coast of a tiny island in Long Island Sound found a surprising diversity of life. It’s a finding advocates hope will further their case for preserving Plum Island and protecting it from commercial development.

Plum Island is owned by the U.S. government. The 840-acre island hosted a high-security research center for decades. But that will soon close.

Louise Harrison, New York natural areas coordinator with the advocacy group Save the Sound, said that Plum Island's hosting of a secret animal research facility for nearly 70 years limited access to the island and left it largely undeveloped.

She wants it to stay that way.

“We are causing species decline almost everywhere we go through our activities. And we have to be a lot more careful than we are,” Harrison said.

To help make the case for preservation, and to further benchmark the diversity of life at the island, Harrison’s group funded a series of dives off the island’s coast last August.

In 26 dives over five days, divers inventoried the underwater environment and found 126 species, including coral, sponges, anemones, snails, crabs and fish.

The scientists also documented the presence of gray seals and harbor seals.

“There’s this fascinating world under the water at Plum Island. Just like we have high biodiversity on the island — we have it all around the island, too,” Harrison said.

Congress initially announced it would sell Plum Island in 2008, which raised fears of development there. As The New York Times reported, former President Donald Trump even pitched building a resort and golf course on the island.

But local zoning regulations and years of grassroots advocacy led Congress to repeal the island’s sale in 2020.

Harrison said federal officials are still figuring out what to do with the island.

Ultimately, she hopes officials either designate Plum Island as a national monument (the island hosts a lighthouse and an old fort listed on the National Register of Historic Places) or is given to a federal agency that will preserve its open space.

“Nature can come back if we give it a chance,” Harrison said. “As far as the future of the island goes, it begs us to use this information for managing it so we can find ways to be more compatible with the organisms and the species that are all around us in this amazing ecosystem called Long Island Sound.”

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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